Sitting at his dressing room stall, Capitals center Evgeny Kuznetsov huffed as he considered a question that’s been on a lot of minds in Washington for the first five weeks of the season. He looked to his right at defenseman Matt Niskanen, and Niskanen just stared back, perhaps curious of the answer, too. The Capitals have tried five different right wings with Kuznetsov and captain Alex Ovechkin in the first 14 games, so why do so many players struggle beside two of the most skilled players in the world?
“I don’t know,” Kuznetsov finally said. “I would like to know that, too.”
It’s something forward Tom Wilson has had a lot of spare time to consider, forced to watch his teammates and the revolving door in his old lineup spot. Last season, he established himself as the rare right wing who can successfully complement Ovechkin and Kuznetsov — he also played a lot of games with center Nicklas Backstrom on that line in place of Kuznetsov — for an extended stretch of games. As he’s had to serve a 20-game suspension for an illegal check to the head, he’s gained an even greater appreciation for what it takes to play there. What can seem like a cushy job is not without its burdens.
“It’s definitely a unique style of play, and it takes some getting used to,” Wilson said. “There’s no real secret formula I have for you, but I’ve tried to talk to some of the guys about what could help them.”
Before Wilson scored a career-high 14 goals and 21 assists playing on that top line — and then got rewarded with a six-year, $31 million deal — he had grow into it. Then-coach Barry Trotz first moved Wilson to a line with Ovechkin and Backstrom in 2014, when Wilson was in his sophomore NHL season. But he wasn’t ready for the responsibility of playing upwards of 16 minutes per game against top competition. Yes, he was on the ice with two superstars, but the opposing forwards and defensemen often fit that description as well. They were talented enough to capitalize on any mistake, and with so many shifts in a game, there were more opportunities for errors. Forward Jakub Vrana learned that last week, when a turnover behind Washington’s net against Dallas resulted in a Stars goal. Vrana was off the top line the next game.
“A big part of my job was the [defensive] zone,” Wilson said. “When we’re in the D-zone, what can I do to make sure we spend as little time as possible there and that we limit chances against? Those guys are at their best when they’ve got the puck and they’re playing in the O-zone, so how can you get out of your zone quickly? …
“[Ovechkin] played great defensively last year in the playoffs. He played amazing. But there are times where maybe he didn’t, and I’ve got to be there, you know? And that’s like any linemate. If you’re not in position, your linemate’s expected to bail you out.”
While Vrana’s elite speed paired well with Kuznetsov and Ovechkin offensively, it was a trio with three forwards who aren’t known for defensive responsibility and, not surprisingly, allowed a bevy of quality chances. Coach Todd Reirden moved Dmitrij Jaskin to that spot for the Capitals’ games against Edmonton and Pittsburgh, and while Jaskin’s ability to limit the opposition’s offense is impressive, his own scoring upside is still a question mark. In 11 games, he has no goals and two assists, and he’s four seasons removed from a double-digit goal total, though as a fourth-liner in St. Louis, his opportunities were limited.
There’s also what Wilson called a “mental burden.” Going a few games without scoring in any other spot in the lineup wouldn’t necessarily be a big deal, but there’s more pressure to produce with Ovechkin and Kuznetsov. And especially if they’re not scoring, it tends to be the third player who is seen as the problem. A new combination can take time to jell, a luxury not often awarded to the top trio.
“I think you can get really intimidated by playing with those two guys, whether it’s Kuzy or Nick in the middle with O on the other side,” said T.J. Oshie, the only other forward on the team who’s had extended success playing there. “Immediately when you move onto that line, whenever you’ve got the puck, you’ve just got to find them and you’ve got to get it to them. But everyone keeps an eye on them, so there’s someone usually around. That works sometimes, but a lot of times, you’re putting pucks into areas where there’s not a lot of space.
“It seems like the more simpler you play with them, the better the line does. The more you get pucks deep and go chase them and turn over pucks, and then on transition get them the puck, they can do some pretty fun stuff with it.”
Wilson said the hardest thing for him to figure out was how to make his individual style fit in that role. "They don’t really want you to dump the puck in,” he said with a chuckle. Still, his physicality could create space and opportunities for Ovechkin and Kuznetsov when he applied pressure with a bruising forecheck or separated an opposing player from the puck with a big hit.
“We just kind of had that understanding that, yeah, I’m not as skilled as Kuzy, but if the puck is in the corner, I’ll go get it and try to get it to him,” Wilson said. “We weren’t trying to be what we weren’t, and I think that was kind of an understanding from day one. You know what, there’s stuff that comes with playing with those guys, but there’s an awful lot of good that comes with playing with those guys.”
Kuznetsov’s unpredictability is its own animal. He’s creative and highly skilled, and what makes him so effective is that opposing teams often don’t know what he’s going to do next. The issue is that his wingers might not either, and because of that, Wilson missed some passes from him when they first started playing together. But Wilson became more familiar with his tendencies over time, and Kuznetsov suggested some areas on the ice he could go to and expect the puck to find him.
“He always tells me, ‘Just put your stick on the ice, and I’ll get it to you,’” Wilson said.
But the communication isn’t always so clear.
“We kind of always talk in Russian,” Kuznetsov admitted.
“All of the time,” Wilson said.
Eventually the trio got into a pattern where Kuznetsov would say what he needed to Ovechkin in Russian and then turn and say it to Wilson in English. Though Jaskin grew up in the Czech Republic, he was born in Russia and is fluent in the language, a significant advantage for playing on that line.
And for all of the quirks that come with being the first-line right wing, Wilson wouldn’t have it any other way.
“You’re not going to hear me complain once about playing with those guys,” he said. “I could be saying all this and then I could come back and my first game we could suck, you know? That’s hockey. You’ve got to stay with it, and you’ve got to do the right things. And hopefully it comes, and hopefully we complement each other well.”
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